Operational Efficiency or “How I became a Bollywood stuntwoman”

David Duncan, Registrar & Secretary at the University of York shares his advice on maintaining an efficient and effective administration. This blog post may or may not contain stories about a career in Bollywood.

The other day, I drew my student-age daughter’s attention to an online article which looked interesting – “Olympic losers”, it read: “Why is India so bad at sport?” My media-savvy offspring quickly identified this as an example of ‘clickbait’ – a headline that entices you to open the page even if you don’t subsequently read the whole piece (which I didn’t). There are numerous others, such as “I found my dad on Facebook”, “Werewolf seized in Southend” and – one I was inexplicably drawn to – “Should we embrace the mid-life crisis?”

I realise that a blog post about ‘operational efficiency’ doesn’t fall into the must-click category, but hopefully you will bear with me for a few thoughts on this multi-faceted topic.

Like many members of AHUA, my duties as Registrar & Secretary fall into three main areas. I am required to ensure that the governance of the institution is as good as it possibly can be; I act as advisor to the Vice Chancellor on anything he cares to seek advice on, but with special reference to non-academic matters; and I have delegated responsibility for the overall coordination of support services.

The last of these is the most time-consuming and arguably the most difficult part of the job; it involves an array of some 1,500 professional staff across nine directorates who in turn work with support staff, academic colleagues and students based in 27 teaching and research units. How on earth is one supposed to ensure that this talented but diverse assembly of individuals is working to maximum efficiency?

In a sense, the task is made more challenging by the increasing professionalism of services in the HE sector. When I first started as a university secretary, I met an elderly gentleman who was then based in the careers service. He had previously worked in human resources – ‘establishment’, as it was called then – and before that, in faculty administration, registry and student recruitment. I think he may also have tried his hand at IT in the days of mainframe computers, but had found that a bridge too far. Even so, he was a genuine Jack-of-all-trades, or most trades, from the era when university administrators cast themselves as gifted amateurs.

Those times are long gone – today we employ highly skilled professionals who, for most of their careers, specialise in particular disciplines. This has led to much greater effectiveness of services but it can also create divisions, as disparate support units pursue different agendas and, on occasion, fail to recognise the pressures that other sections are coping with.

My personal approach to operational efficiency involves endlessly trying to overcome the complexity of the organisation and hammering away at a few key essentials. These are to:

  • Create structures that make sense from the perspective of the users, whether they are students or staff
  • Focus professional services on supporting front-line academic activities – i.e. teaching and research – and on enhancing the student experience
  • Enjoin everyone in professional support services to work together and reward staff who demonstrate an ability to form teams that encompass different types of expertise
  • Encourage academic staff to be open about where they require more or better support, but also to regard support staff as equals in a shared endeavour
  • Strive to ensure that support staff in academic units and those in central services regard each other as colleagues who share common goals
  • Require everyone to think about how systems and processes can be improved, led by a team of experts in business process re-engineering
  • Use external benchmarking to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of the various functions
  • Be open to ideas from other sectors, but not to follow slavishly every fad and fashion which may not be translatable to the HE context
  • Avoid assuming that financial savings are always synonymous with greater efficiency – there is no point in letting junior staff go and asking highly paid professors to perform routine tasks
  • Invest in focused training and development opportunities which allow staff to improve their efficiency but also develop their careers
  • Engage with trade unions and other stakeholders to ensure everyone understands the agenda and, if possible, buys into it
  • Deploy technological solutions where these can best enhance efficiency but avoid major spend unless there is absolute clarity over the cost benefits.

No doubt there are other key lessons that are worth debating and which could extend this list to 20 or 30, but I feel I have stretched the reader’s patience far enough with a lack of Bollywood stunts. Besides, look – there’s a web article with the title “Martian to be autopsied at Dundee University”; I simply have to click it…